THE FUTURE OF THE PAST
BY RUSSELL SHORTO
September 12, 2004
To take no sides in history would be as false as to take no
sides in life," the historian Barbara W. Tuchman once
wrote. If that applies to the written word, it is just as
true for the presentation of history in museums. Museums
can't be objective because history isn't. To be meaningful,
a museum needs a slant. On the other hand, a museum
dedicated to the history of a place is supposed to be
broadly representative. So there's the contradiction: if a
museum is doing its job, you might say, it's ticking
By that yardstick, the custodians of three of the main
museums devoted to New York history are doing a terrific
job. At receptions, in the newspaper, at meetings of their
boards, the future of New York's past is being discussed in
strident terms. The heightened political climate this fall
is adding effervescence. And the backdrop and catalyst is
the event of three years ago that refocused New York in the
eyes of the world.
For a long while, people have lamented a lack in New York.
Go to London, Sydney, Amsterdam, Chicago, Atlanta,
Pittsburgh, and you'll find a museum devoted to that city's
past. It's a context stop for any visitor, resident or
student that, in an hour or two, sets the whos, hows and
whys of the place - coal, convicts, spices, hogs, soldiers,
princes - in a chronological and topical landscape. An
urban history museum can provide a forum for debating
current problems by setting them in earlier contexts. It
can be a tool for city schools. It can be a focal point and
a benchmark, something to which residents can point and
say, "This is who we are."
Perhaps typically, New York doesn't have one museum to tell
its story: it has several, plus dozens of more specialized
history centers. And while three - the New-York Historical
Society, the Museum of the City of New York and the South
Street Seaport Museum - have overlapping missions and
collections, according to many observers this is a case
where more is less. Given that their subject is the
brassiest, mightiest, most improbable and consequential
city in the country if not the world, attendance is
pitiable. Where the American Museum of Natural History
pulls in three million visitors a year, the Historical
Society, sitting grandly right beside it on Central Park
West, gets fewer than 150,000. As Richard Gilder, one
trustee, lamented, "You'd think that many people would get
lost wandering in from next door."
Cyclically over the last couple of decades, cries of
"merger" have risen to a crest, then crashed in meetings
that went nowhere. But questions about how best to channel
the city's history are more pressing than ever. Three years
after the fact, it is becoming clear that the attacks of
Sept. 11 did not diminish the attractiveness of New York,
and may in fact have burnished it.
Nearly 38 million people visited the city last year, a
record high and a 7 percent increase over the previous
year, making it the second most visited destination in the
country (behind Orlando, the home of Disney World, and
ahead of Las Vegas). And history is a part of that, as
suggested by the explosion of books about the city's past,
the growth in the walking tour industry and the popularity
of Ric Burns's documentary series on the subject.
Given that interest, and given the chronically straitened
finances of each of these three museums and the fact that
the city is perennially forced to rescue one or another
from the fiscal brink, is it time again to ask the merger
question? Would it be more cost effective to pool
resources? Could a single entity devoted to presenting New
York's history become a must-visit destination in a way
that none of these institutions are? And would a merged
institution be a fitting response to the World Trade Center
attack, one grand place that tells the whole story of New
York, from Dutch port to first national capital to
lower-case world trade center?
"Of course there should be one museum for all of New York
history," said Betsy Gotbaum, New York's public advocate,
who ran the Historical Society from 1994 to 2001. Of
similar mind is Mike Wallace, co-author of "Gotham: A
History of New York City to 1898," who has labored in this
regard more than anyone through the Gotham Center for New
York History, the scholarly and education organization he
founded in 2000. "It's criminal that we don't, as they say,
capitalize on our history assets," he said.
BUT an attempt to place a coalition of New York history
institutions at the future World Trade Center site failed,
and there is no merger in the offing. The grande dame of
the three institutions, the Historical Society, has the
prestige, attitude and location to take the lead role in
refocusing the city's self-image, but many people think
that as a museum it has also been, historically, the
One problem is the Historical Society has always been
burdened by its collection, the base of which is the
leavings of generations of the city's wealthy residents:
How do you make a mission out of antique silverware? The
institution hit bottom in 1993 when, out of funds, it
closed its doors; it was subsequently given CPR and limped
along for the next decade.
Meanwhile, in 2002 the grand plan of the Museum of the City
of New York to vacate its undervisited outpost at 103rd
Street and Fifth Avenue and move into the Tweed Courthouse
in Lower Manhattan was scotched by the change in City Hall.
Where Mayor Giuliani had promised the ornate building to
the museum, which then spent years rebuilding its endowment
in anticipation of the move, Mayor Bloomberg promptly axed
the plan shortly after he took office; the Department of
Education later moved into the building. In response, the
museum's president, Robert Macdonald, resigned, and the
place was in left in chaos.
The South Street Seaport, which over the last 37 years has
built a unique home for itself on a historic piece of Lower
Manhattan waterfront, has a more specialized focus: the
history of the port of New York. While it has collections
of artifacts, its most attention-grabbing holdings are its
nine historic ships.
The museum recently completed a $20 million renovation of
its Schermerhorn Row home, but the attacks of Sept. 11
caused a 40 percent drop in visitors. People have started
coming back, but the sudden layoff in June of its
waterfront curator and several other officials signaled
serious trouble. Former staff members are whispering of
ships rotting in the water and financial mismanagement.
Lawrence Huntington, chairman of the museum's board,
acknowledges "disorderly finances" in the recent past, but
insists the museum is on a new footing.
SO those are three fairly sorry stories. And yet, change is
afoot. Most dramatic is the controversial rejuvenation of
the Historical Society. The story that has percolated in
New York's history circles and beyond is of a "right-wing
takeover" of its board of trustees by Mr. Gilder and Lewis
E. Lehrman, businessmen with big-time conservative
associations. (Mr. Gilder is former chairman of the
Manhattan Institute, a conservative policy group; Mr.
Lehrman has served on the boards of the Manhattan Institute
and the American Enterprise Institute.) The two joined the
board last year and brought with them new energy, great
gobs of cash and their important collection of historical
Some in New York history circles are convinced that the
museum will now look at history through neocon glasses.
Others, however, note that the two men have supported a
variety of history projects without the taint of bias. For
his part, Mr. Gilder insisted that his motivation is a
passion for history. "We want people to be excited about
American history," he said.
The beginning of the new era at the Historical Society came
two days ago, with the opening of the much-publicized
Alexander Hamilton exhibit. At $5 million ($2 million
directly from Mr. Gilder and Mr. Lehrman), its price tag is
10 times that of anything the museum has ever mounted, and
it heralds the Historical Society's newly refashioned
mission: to focus not on New York history but on national
history as seen through the prism of New York.
Portending the city's immigrant tradition, Hamilton was
born in the Caribbean and emigrated to New York, which was
his home as he fought in the Revolution, served in
Washington's cabinet and founded the Bank of New York and
the American financial system. For too long, the exhibit in
effect argues, America's early history has been dominated
by the founding fathers of Virginia and New England.
Hamilton represents New York's claim to be in that front
Some historians fear that the new national emphasis means
that the Historical Society intends to back away from any
focus on New York, and thus they consider the new direction
a betrayal of the city.
But if carried through as advertised, the new focus could
be exactly what the city needs. The idea is to leverage the
institution's pedigree and seize the historical moment -
the post-Sept. 11 focus on New York - to elevate both the
Historical Society and its city. In doing so, the
Historical Society is ceding the "five boroughs" story to
the Museum of the City of New York, which allows for a
complementary rather than a competing relationship.
"I think New York is very much advantaged by having a
museum that focuses on the history of the city," said
Louise Mirrer, the new president of the Historical Society,
referring to the Museum of the City of New York. "But, and
I'm going to sound arrogant here as a New Yorker, New York
occupies a privileged place in American history, and not to
have in the forefront of its consciousness that specialness
would shortchange visitors and residents."
If the rest of the country is unaware of that specialness,
New York has only itself to blame. The same triangle of
real estate in Lower Manhattan on which the World Trade
Center rose and which has long served as the nexus of
global finance was the home of the original American
melting pot and the first American Congress. Lower
Manhattan alone could lay claim to the title of birthplace
of America. New York has never donned that mantle, but
having a significant museum take on the New York-as-America
mission would be a step in that direction.
It remains to be seen whether the Historical Society will
do that, or whether it will become, as some fear, a conduit
for a conservative, Great Men approach to history. The
Hamilton show is inescapably in the Great Men tradition,
focusing on a leader rather than on-the-ground stuff like
gentrification, race, immigrant stories, poverty, AIDS.
This, some historians feel, is where the political fault
lines run. "There's politics in picking subjects and
presentational styles,'' Dr. Wallace said. "It's in your
silences as well as your emphases, your focus on some parts
of the populace and not others, your opting for boosterish
affirmation or critical but sympathetic understanding.''
But Dr. Mirrer maintains that the Historical Society will
integrate the two approaches; she is especially keen on a
planned blockbuster on slavery that will be built around
the logbook of a New York-based slave ship and the story of
a girl who sailed on it.
This particular struggle has much to do with the self-image
of the Historical Society, whose trustees want it to become
broader in scope and at the same time remain traditional
and stately. The other two history institutions, meanwhile,
have taken a more on-the-ground approach. The Museum of the
City of New York has a vigorous new president - Susan
Henshaw Jones, formerly the head of the National Building
Museum in Washington - who recently won a $13.9 million
grant from the city for improvements. Far from trying to
pretend it isn't in East Harlem, the museum has mounted
exhibits on the neighborhood, and Ms. Jones has instituted
a program of free admission for neighborhood residents.
More substantively, the museum is planning an expansion
scheduled to be completed by 2010, and as part of it, Ms.
Jones wants to create something that one of the history
museums should have had long ago: a permanent exhibit
devoted to the whole history of New York. Martin
McLaughlin, a trustee, said the decision by the Historical
Society to go national helped the Museum of the City of New
York recommit itself to local outreach and to telling the
story of the five boroughs.
FOR all its current troubles, the South Street Seaport has
an even greater community presence and a sense of local
mission. Its historic buildings and ships may obscure the
fact that it has, over the 19 years that Peter Neill was
its president (he resigned in June but remains a museum
official), reached the point where it devotes one-third of
its budget to work in the city's schools.
It co-founded the New York Harbor School, an alternative
high school in Bushwick. It is the lead institution in the
High School for History and Communication, which just
opened on the Lower East Side, where the mission is to
weave history into every part of the curriculum. It
sponsors educational sailing programs for the disabled.
"That connects us with the community in a way that makes us
relevant beyond the value of heirlooms in the attic," Mr.
All of which is to say that if taking sides is what history
ought to do, then in this case three sides are probably
better than one. A single monolithic history center might
inevitably be seen as a politburo, molding history
according to the whims of its donors. Different
institutions mean a mix of methods. Let yourself dream a
happy dream in which the lofty New-York Historical Society
sits grandly on Central Park, unfurling big shows about the
big New York, while the Museum of the City of New York does
the boroughs with gusto and the Seaport sails into the
It requires money, of course, which means having the
government and others see New York's history not as a
foster child but as a central resource that binds the city
and pays back in all kinds of ways. It also requires
coordination and marketing. Focusing on three museums is
only a conceit. There are dozens of smaller, specialty
history centers in the city, and some of them - the
Tenement Museum, the New York City Police Museum, Federal
Hall, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the Museum of
Jewish Heritage, the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, and
others - used post-Sept. 11 funds to form a coalition, and
are marketing themselves as the Museums of Lower Manhattan.
"What we came to realize was that all of our different
stories are told best by their individual museums, and
what's really needed is to market the idea of New York
history," said Carol Willis, founder and director of the
Skyscraper Museum. "You don't have to streamline or
consolidate. You have to communicate.''
Russell Shorto is the author of "The Island at the Center
of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the
Forgotten Colony That Shaped America," published earlier
this year by Doubleday.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company The New York Times